Monday, December 14, 2009

A Little Night Music

I was watching the ice skating on televison. I don’t remember who it was – Peggy Fleming? Dorothy Hamill? Somebody was doing a lovely job skating to Judy Collins sing Send In the Clowns. I didn’t know the song but the performance was lovely.

I was a young teenage boy.
A few years later I bought a cd of instrumental music from Broadway musicals called DIGITAL BROADWAY. There was a medley of two songs called Night Waltz and Send in the Clowns from a musical called A Little Night Music. The sweeping melodies haunted and captivated me. I needed to know more. Even at this young age I was a researcher. I got one of my things for the musical A Little Night Music. A year later, craving to be a singer, I found a store that sold sheet music and vocal selections and bought the music to A Little Night Music so that I could learn the songs – all this without, ever, having heard the cast album. I took that music to my first voice teacher (a high schooler in Switzerland, finding a voice teacher was a tricky thing to do; but I did and he taught me, in his trained operatic style, a few things about singing before I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t do it – a struggle I have fought my entire life). I could not read the music but I could read the words and the song that interested me the most was not Send in the Clowns. The song I wanted to sing was the uber sophisticated Liaisons. My teacher was dubious but he helped me work on the tune, as well as forcing me to try out Send in the Clowns – the song with fewer notes to be hit by my limited range.

Thus began my lifelong association with A Little Night Music.

A freshman in college, I devoured musical theater, spending all my extra cash at Sound Warehouse, buying records every weekend. Each time I bought records, I included a Sondheim album. Soon my collection had almost all of them. Follies, Sweeney Todd, Company, Merrily We Roll Along…. A Little Night Music.

I didn’t understand the intricacies of the score, so I didn’t understand what it meant when people told me the entire score was written in ¾ time. I didn’t know what that meant – but I have, since, been informed that that is a common misconception. The score of A Little Night Music is not comprised only of waltzes. I still don’t really know what that means. They don’t sound like waltzes to me; they only sound like art. I loved that score from the first moment I heard it. I was captivated by the intelligence and the sexiness, by the romance and the reality. It was destined to become one of my favourites.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I went to Amarillo to do a musical (outdoor! Eesh!), where I met a very nice technie named Kyle. I was terribly attracted to him but I wasn’t out of the closet and I didn’t know how to manipulate my gaydar (sometimes I still cannot) so I didn’t know if he was gay and interested. Looking back, I remember laying around his apartment living room, giving us other back and foot rubs and listening to his favourite record – the movie soundtrack to A Little Night Music—and I realize that he was gay and interested. Damn. I missed out on that one. Still, it was sexy, spending parts of that summer in his physical embrace and listening to the rather inferiour recording and looking at the drawing on the cover of the huge tree with the couples fornicating. I had looked at the Broadway cast album many times but it was a darker shade of blue and the couples didn’t show up quite so well. It was dirty. Years later I saw the rather lamentable film version of A Little Night Music; all the humour had been stripped of the script, along with all the sexiness, leaving nothing but some rather opulent scenery and costumes showcased by a film that fell, frustratingly, flat.

In the years to come, I would become acquainted with the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. I would see community theater productions that boasted some good production values or some good performances – rarely both. I saw Desiree Armfeldt played by Wendye Clarendon and by Betty Buckley. I listened to a cast album starring the luminous Jean Simmons. Deliriously happy, I watched the live broadcast of the NYCO production starring my childhood idol, Sally Ann Howes. I listened as singers sang the songs from Night Music in concert and on their cds; I listened to people butcher The Miller’s Son and Send in the Clowns while others turned in what would become my favourite versions of the song. I looked at bootlegs of Blair Brown and listened to bootlegs of the original cast, live. I snatched up a new cast recordings starring Judi Dench and picked up a studio recording that featured Sian Phillips and Maria Friedman. I read, with interest, about productions that would star Lee Remick and Natasha Richardson (neither one occurred, sadly, because of the great actresses respective deaths); I heard tell of productions with Lois Nettleton, Juliet Stevenson, Leslie Uggams, Judith Ivey. I heard that Glenn Close would headline the first Broadway revival – something that never happened. I have followed, with voracious appetite, the stories of A Little Night Music.

When I went to work for the Florence Klotz Estate, I got permission from my boss to bring one of the late costumer’s Tony awards home to decorate my abode during the Christmas season. The Tony I chose was A Little Night Music. The first drawing I sought out when I started my job was that of Desriee Armfeldt’s red dress.

It can and should be said that I am a fan of A Little Night Music.

So imagine my delight when my husband stayed up til midnight the night that the tickets went on sale. These were the tickets to the first Broadway revival of my beloved musical and the stars were (one of my homes’ favourites) Catherine Zeta-Jones and the actress who has been the most important actress in both my life and Pat’s.. Miss Angela Lansbury. I awoke the next day and Pat said “I got our tickets to Night Music.”

After waiting weeks of perpetual anticipation, we dressed for the theater and went, giddy and glammed up, to see our divas in this most important production of this most important show. For two plus hours we sat forward in our seats, holding hands, laughing, sighing, crying and wishing we could sing along (sometimes mouthing the words). When we went home, we were on the cloud ninest of heavenly clouds. It was one of those magical nights in a Broadway theater that Pat and I will never forget; on that we have already agreed. Maybe it is just our deep and ardent love of the play itself. Maybe it is our strong affection for Miss Zeta-Jones. Maybe it is our devotion to Miss Lansbury. I can’t say. I don’t care. From the moment the curtain went up, we were destined to be in love.

It’s a small production; that much is clear from the start of the show. When the curtain rises, there is no lush and luxurious set, like the one so many (who have raved about having seen the original production) remember, the set made famous by Boris Aronson. No, this is a wall of mirrors on a bare stage, looking rather like a recital hall. Indeed, instead of a piano, the instrument that starts the show is a cello, placed center stage, like a recital. The Liebeslieder take their places around the cello and the recital has begun. It is a chamber piece being performed by young classical musicians in the middle of an Ingmar Bergman movie. Enter the actors, in modest period dress, mostly dull in colour –it’s rather like looking at a black and white film; it’s rather like looking at a black and white Bergman film. The opulent Florence Klotz costumes we’ve all seen in production stills didn’t make it into this production. These costumes look like the kind of outfits one might see in a production of A Doll’s House. The sets appear to somewhat angular and claustrophobic, not unlike the small rooms and short camera angles to be seen in the movie Smiles of a Summer Night, not unlike the rooms that confine the life and emotions of Nora in the famed Ibsen play mentioned above. It becomes very clear, very fast, that Sir Trevor Nunn has gone to the trouble of looking at the original film upon which this musical is based, has gone to the trouble of looking at the Scandinavian works of the era, the signs of the times, the moods of the day. He has gone back to the source material to bring us INTO the homes and the hearts, the mindsets and the moods of these characters, struggling to find love in the muddle of a sexually driven society. All of this becomes even more abundantly clear when Act Two begins and all the darkness of the city life disappears, only to be replaced by the light of the countryside. What was once black is now white. Did I mention that the film Smiles of a Summer Night is in black and white? We are, indeed, watching an Ingmar Bergman movie. Splashes of colour and oddball configurations illuminate the second act as the guests at Madame Armfeldt’s summer manse become drunk and more clouded by sexual misconduct; and we become drunk with them, watching what appears to be a three dimensional Salvador Dali painting.

Some may be upset that this production has abandoned the glamour of the original production. I don’t understand their upset. After all, why should Trevor Nunn look back to the original production for his inspirations? Why should he not, why WOULD he not, wish to create his OWN artistic vision? It’s a different vision, true; but it is HIS vision.

And what a lovely vision it is.

The smaller orchestra, the smaller orchestrations, allows the audience to really hear each and every delicious syllable of the intricate lyrics. The more intimate settings allow us to really feel as though we are in the room (or at least looking in the window) as these people navigate the relationships and liaisons of their lives. Imagine – the play is set in a land where there are virtually no completely dark hours. It gets dim, but the song itself says that the sun won’t set. These people are living impossibly long days during the lusty months of summertime. Most of them are unemployed and the ones who are employed work hard so that they can play hard. Sex is the foremost thing on their minds. A weekend in the country can be about almost nothing BUT sex. It is only right that the cast be a group of young and vibrant people, the kind who spend all their time actively pursuing the art of procreating. Only Madame Armfeldt, confined to her wheelchair, does not seek out sex; instead, she dispenses memories and advice about the power of sex.

In the star spot, playing this old woman, is Angela Lansbury. Oh, she isn’t the star of the show.. she is a secondary character. Her stature in the business, though, makes her the star. Everyone is there to see Angela Lansbury play Madame Armfeldt. It has, long, been the dream of every theatergoer to see her do this part. Finally, we are all satisfied, for she turns in the performance we have all dreamed of. It is theatrical heaven to hear her say these lines, to hear her sing Sondheim again. Nobody, even the most cynical of theatergoers devoted to hating the production that is NOT the original, could leave the Walter Kerr Theater without being able to say that they were thrilled to see Angie do this part. I would be hard pressed to find a favourite part of her performance but two things I will always remember is how, at the top of Act Two, when she is wheeled out in a wash of blueish-green light, I thought “she looks like Countess Aurelia”; the second is how, as the play progresses, Leonora Armfeldt becomes more and more disheveled until her hair is a wild bird’s nest and her make up appears somewhat grotesque. She is coming apart, physically, before our very eyes, until her famous last line “only the last” eases her into a deep and comforting sleep, at long last. It made me weep

The other star of the show is a bona fide star. This kind of magnetism doesn’t come along every day and when it does, an actor has no choice but to become a star. Oh, they may be an actor, too; but there are certain people who simply cannot help but be a star. When you are in a room with them, you cannot help but stare. Bette Davis had it. So did Errol Flynn. Vanessa Redgrave. Paul Newman. Jessica Lange. Christopher Reeve. Meryl Streep. Kevin Kline. Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman. When they are before you, you simply can not tear your eyes from them. That is Catherine Zeta-Jones all over the place.

There has always been discussion over what makes an actress right to play Desiree Armfeldt. I believe it is a mixture of things… First of all, she is called The One and Only Desiree Armfeldt. So an actress really needs to have the magnetism mentioned above. I think it would be hard to argue with me when I saw Glynis Johns has it. She always has had it. Whether playing Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins or Elsie in While You Were Sleeping, Glynis Johns has always been mesmerizing. Desiree Armfeldt was probably her most shining moment. Those lucky enough to have seen her play the part have talked about it being one of sheer perfection, of absolute joy. I think that the reason Elizabeth Taylor did the film is because she, too, has that kind of magnetism; sadly, something went wrong and the rest of her presence in the movie fell horribly flat. Zeta-Jones has the magnetism, in spades. Among the other qualities I think Miss Desiree Armfeldt needs are warmth – everyone has to love her, from the characters onstage to the people in the audience; sexiness – she has to be a randy, sexy woman that could have any man that she wants; strength—she is a single working mother, making her way in a difficult industry; vulnerability—she needs to let her guard down near the end of the play so that everyone watching (including Frederick Egerman) can see how much she needs him; humour—it is by making people laugh that one makes them fall, truly, in love.

I wasn’t lucky enough to see Glynis Johns. I’ve already said what I thought of Elizabeth Taylor. I didn’t find Betty Buckley possessing of all the qualities I think belong in a good Desiree Armfeldt. I am heartbroken that I didn’t get to see (nobody did) my favourite actress, Lee Remick, as Desiree. Some were lucky enough to see Natasha Richardson (I am sure she was absolute perfection). I have spoken to people who saw this production of Night Music in London with an actress whose name I do not know but who say that she was divine. The other Desiree Armfeldt we all know and talk about is my beloved friend, Judi Dench. I only saw her performance on a tv special about the making of the show, as well as one song performed on a tv special, a tribute to Cameron MacIntosh. All the reports are that hers was the greatest Desiree Armfeldt and the greatest Send In The Clowns, ever. I can’t say. It would be rude to Glynis Johns. I can say that what I know of both of these women’s performances moves me to the marrow. I did see the tv version with Sally Ann Howes as Desiree and I found hers to be a lovely characterization: warm, funny, sexy, strong, vulnerable –and certainly well sung. It is a performance I have championed for many years. I found, less interesting, the dvd bootleg I have of Blair Brown and I missed Juliet Stevenson and Judith Ivey.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, the night we saw the show, seemed to be on her way to meeting the criteria I have for Desiree Armfeldt. I didn’t think she was quite finished baking. She seemed, at times, to be having trouble with her lines and trouble finding the ‘who’ of the woman. She had (definitely had) the magnetism, the strength, the sexiness and the vulnerability. I feel like, when she has found the who, the warmth will follow. It’s not finished yet – but it’s a lot there. I loved her Desiree, I really did. I can’t wait to go back and see how she grows. Some of the things I loved about her Desiree were these: she was real. She was a little pouty and petulant at times (and who among us has not seen an actress stamp her foot and pout, from time to time) and unafraid to be. Pouty and petulant. She was nervous. She was jealous. She was bitter. Parts of Send in the Clowns, it was almost like she was shaking her said, as if to say “I can’t believe you are rejecting me – I can’t believe I opened myself up to this kind of disappointment”. Most of all, what I loved was how much she and Frederick wanted each other. When they were in the room together, it was like all they could do was think about getting naked. It’s been a long, long, time since I have been at a theater and wanting a couple to kiss so much. I was yearning, aching for them to kiss; and in the final moments of the play, she, seated on the ground, looks up at him, simply, with longing and little girl vulnerability, as if to say “please, sweep me off my feet” and he does – and when they (finally!) kiss, the entire audience sighs.

I heard someone say, recently, that Desiree Armfeldt is over the hill and this is her last chance. I can’t say that I agree with that theory. She has a 12 year old daughter – how old can she be? She is a successful actress, so she doesn’t need to marry a man for security. She has a wealthy mother who is approaching her demise – she will inherit all that money. She isn’t reaching her sell by date: she just wants something more than what she has. The fact that this Desiree is so young and beautiful, so vibrant and hearty, makes this production resonate just that much more. It shows that the need for love and a family knows no limitation based on age, class, profession or anything else. It is universal.

Opposite the great Zeta-Jones is an Englishman named Alexander Hanson and, frankly, when I am in the room with him, all I want is to be swept up in his arms and carried away, too. He is handsome as all get-out, sexy as hell, talented to beat the band… he goes toe to toe with the movie star freight trained called the Zeta-Express and he holds his own. I have loved listening to Len Cariou sing on the OBC for over two decades, so it is hard for me to say this: but THIS is my favourite Frederick Egerman. Ever.

And speaking of favourites, let’s talk about Leigh Ann Larkin. Petra is a tricky role. She’s that sassy maid who represents the common folk for whom sex is a pastime, something fun to be done when the work day is through. No middle class morality to cloud her mind – she knows who she is and what she is about. I haven’t ever seen a Petra that I believed – the actress in the part always seems to be very self aware and acting to the audience. And there is the little matter of the difficulty of the song The Miller’s Son (one of my favourites, by the way, and I’ve never heard a Petra do it justice -- for the record my favourite recordings of this song are by Liz Callaway and Rachel York on two different recordings) – I’ve never seen a Petra who was able to handle this number. Til now. Egad. It was stunning. It was dirty, it was raunchy, it was honest, it was funny, it was sexy and it was sung faster than any Miller’s Son I have ever seen

I loved Ramona Mallory as Anne – she was spot on perfect. I loved Aaron Lazar as Carl-Magnus (in both cases, my favourites I’ve ever seen in these parts). I will be on the lookout for them in future parts. Young Hunter Herdlicka put s a new, juvenile spin on Henrik and, though it took me a couple of scenes to get what he was doing, I did get it and I went for it. I never know who is playing the part of a young person in plays because they usually double cast it because of child labour laws. I don’t know which girl was playing Fredrika the night I saw it but she was simply wonderful. Wonderful. The actors playing the Liebeslieder were also simply wonderful and I loved the way Sir Trevor used them in their scenes, like a Scandinavian Greek chorus blended into the action instead of outside of it, watching.
And now we come to the subject of Charlotte Malcolm. I saw Erin Davie in CURTAINS (a show I adored) but I did not see her in Grey Gardens. I was anxious to see what she would do with this character – arguably one of the theatergoing community’s favourites. The character has all the great one liners in the show, that extraordinary song (Every Day A Little Death) and a fabulous arc to follow, as you watch the show. The original, Patricia Elliott, got a Tony award for playing the part. The character is always played by strong women who throw the one liners around with ease, getting the laughs and getting the love (from the audience). Diana Rigg did the movie. Michelle Pawk did it at Lincoln Center. Randy Graff did it in D.C. My favourite has always been the inimitable Maureen Moore on the NYCO PBS broadcast. So I was very excited to see what Erin Davie would do.


She did it different. And while it goes against what I love about Maureen Moore’s performance, I get it. She made Charlotte soft. She made Charlotte a housewife who had been abandoned by her husband. She was weak and weepy and she was desperate. She played the part, not for the laughs, for the emotion, for the reality. She played the part like a woman. You see, the word Countess has confused us all and we think of Charlotte Malcolm as this implacable woman of royal upbringing … but she isn’t. She is a countess by marriage. She is a woman. She married a count. The aristocracy of Europe lived (lives?) differently than normal people and now she must get used to it and put up with all his boloney. So Erin Davie gave this woman a heart and it is broken and her arc becomes stronger and more interesting as she becomes stronger and more interesting until, by the end of the play, she has got her husband back, with the audience cheering her on.

It’s a bold choice.

I applaud bold choices.

Someone recently said a snarky thing to me about a moment in the play in which the characters are seated on the floor with Madame Armfeldt sitting center, in her wheelchair. This person said “Madame Armfeldt would NEVER have her guests sit on the FRIGGIN FLOOR!” I would like to address this comment, now:

Speaking as someone who has lived in Europe and known people of a more aristocratic upbringing, I have observed that the wealthy Europeans, be they royals or rich, don’t care a fig about sitting on a chair or on the ground. They don’t have to care. They know their blood is blue. They don’t’ care about class consciousness because they don’t have to. They require no validation – they know that they live above it all; so they can do whatever the heck they like, including sitting on the ground. Remember the scene in Tea With Mussolini when Lady Hester and her friends and family are sitting on the ground and she says “Americans don’t’ understand picnics”. Squatting on the ground like Bohemians is perfectly acceptable, once you have met your guests and made your first impression. Madame Armfeldt was a peasant, a courtesan; she slept around and made a fortune. Trust me. She doesn’t mind sitting on the floor.

She minds being bored.

I mind being bored, too.
Thank God.
At A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC I wasn’t bored.

Please note that I did not take any of the photos seen in this story of the original Broadway and West End Casts, the National Tour (yes, that is Margarte Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt), the film, the National Theater Production or the current revival on Broadway


Blogger Deep Dish said...

What a wonderful review, Ste. Makes me want to come to NYC and see the show.

2:40 AM  
Blogger AJohnP said...

Thanks for the excellent write up. I've been reading all the pissy comments about the show over on a certain theatre 'discussion' board (which you're all too famlilar with) and it was making me depressed. I'm sure you and I would see the same show. :-)

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. What an amazing review. I found myself hanging on every word, as though it were the final chapter of a whodunit! Thanks.


9:09 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

What a wonderfully in depth literary critiscism of an amaerican classic and how is has affected your life. I am 33 and work as a professional wig and makeup designer in theatre and opera, and am about to design wigs for my first production of Music. I have done scenes befoe , but never the whole show. I am so excited. I really wish I could see the broadway show, and hopefully i will be able to make the trip from houston to ny in time to see it. One thing that bothers me from the stills ad photos, purely from a design aspect, is the oversimplified hair and costumes. Catherine ZJ looks like she threw her own hair up, when shes really wearing a 2000 dollar wig. I do not feel desiree would be that boring, and im sure they cut the red dress. It seems in many revivals they try so hard, almost too hard to make the production as different as posssible from anything anyone has ever ecene before, often ruining the show. Having not seen this I cant say, it sounds divine despite the lackluster spectacle. For knowledgable theatre ad film bufss like us, the bergman connection may be easy to spot, unfortunatly we ar only about 1% of a broadway audience. I will say however i do like lansburys wigs makeup and costumes, and i still desperatly want to see it. This was an excellent in depth essay, that will actually help my understanding when I design. Thank you.

1:49 AM  

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